Urban siege in south Asia

A new wave of urban assaults poses a severe challenge in the cities of south Asia and beyond.

Adam Elkus John P. Sullivan
9 November 2009

Pakistan’s terrorist and insurgent guerillas are taking their fight to Pakistan’s cities. Islamabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Peshawar now join remote mountain outposts as venues for battles furthering Taliban and al-Qaeda guerilla strategy. The recent spate of bombings and paramilitary assaults in Pakistani cities continues a widespread trend of urban siege in south Asia. Terrorism and insurgency has shifted out of its predominantly rural context to embrace bloodshed in cities. While tactically successful, however, the attacks are of uncertain strategic quality. While they may succeed in spreading warfare to urban localities, the attacks show little sign of changing government policy.

Laboratory of Urban Conflict

The significance of urban battles was demonstrated in the synchronized assault on Mumbai. These coordinated bombings and armed actions are now an emerging trend in Pakistan. In short, Pakistan’s cities are under assault. Consider the recent series of attacks in Pakistan. Near-simultaneous engagements against police agencies on 15 October 2009 rocked Pakistan. In Lahore a teenage assailant wearing a suicide vest conducted an armed assault on the headquarters of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency. At about the same time, Taliban assault teams conduct raids against two police facilities in other parts of the city.

Chaos embraced the city with Lahore’s 10 million residents besieged by a handful of skilled and determined paramilitary terrorists. These attacks were part of a 10-day urban assault sequence that started with a suicide attack on the UN’s World Food Program in Islamabad on 5 October 2009, followed by an attack on a bazaar in Peshawar on 9 October that killed 49 civilians, and a 10 October hostage-siege directed against Army General Headquarters.

The strategic use of urban assault tactics signals the rise of paramilitary terrorism. Insurgent suicide squads have chosen to bring the fight to the crowded streets of urban Pakistan. Shopping centers, hotels, schools, and police stations are targeted, raising the potential of urban carnage as a terrorist tool. We are seeing the urbanization of insurgency. The lessons learned in South Asia will likely become harbingers of tactical and operational innovation soon to be seen elsewhere.

Tactical Innovation from Mumbai to Urban Pakistan

Mumbai was the showcase of the 'new' urban assault style. Multiple attackers fanned out across a city, collapsed the police’s command and control (C2) network, and then entrenched themselves for a further round of bloodshed. When the dust settled, 173 were dead and 308 were wounded, an impressive toll for only 10 attackers armed with small arms and explosives. Although many Westerners may chalk this up to the relative backwardness of the Indian police, the basic doctrinal problems inherent in the Mumbai police’s response are also issues for American law enforcement counterterrorism tactics.

The November 2008 attacks in Mumbai were not unique, but a part of a general resurgence in urban paramilitary terrorism that started in the 1990s. Although sophisticated paramilitary attacks were common in many parts of the world during the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of professionalized counterterrorism forces and saturation policing crushed most urban terrorists. Additionally, the end of the Cold War ended official Warsaw Pact and Third World military training and support for leftist terrorists. These attacks tended to emphasize showmanship over body count and were rarely sequenced together or featured multiple assault elements.

The urban attacks of the 1990s and the early 2000s, however, are qualitatively different. Destructive power has increased due to better operational sequencing of paramilitary attacks, car bombs, and suicide bombers. Multiple elements can operate in time, utilizing better C2 nodes than before. Hostage takers have developed better fortification, surveillance, and perimeter defense skills. Moreover, due to a deadly combination of ethnic nationalism and religious fervor, attackers are more bloodthirsty and prepared for death. That being said, gangland codes of blood and honor can also be a powerful motivator, especially when criminal soldiers such as former Mexican special forces operatives face adversaries inferior in both training and armament.

Following the Mumbai template, Pakistan witnessed attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team in March 2009, a gun-suicide combo directed against the Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) on 27 May 2009, and a variety of on-going attacks on hotels, mosques, and civilian targets in many of Pakistan’s densely populated urban centers. As Razi Ahmed observed in his 11 June 2009 openDemocracy essay “Lahore to Peshawar: the trophy-target war” (See Razi Ahmed, “Lahore to Peshawar: The Trophy-Target War,” Open Democracy, 11 June 2009), the perpetrators of these strikes are a nexus of al-Qaida, Pakistani Taliban, and local militants that have chosen to strike Pakistan’s city-centers to punish the Pakistani state for crackdowns on their insurgent activities.

The October sequence of attacks on Pakistani Army headquarters in Rawalpindi, coupled with the recent paramilitary strikes on police stations and other symbols of government authority, are cut from the same cloth as Mumbai. They were carried out by suicide commandos operating with inside help and the benefit of preparation, and were sequenced together for operational as opposed to tactical effect. They occurred before a major Pakistani Army offensive against Pakistani Taliban bases and hit symbols of authority in order to convince the government and the public to back off from the current crackdown.

Uncertain Strategic Impact

Today’s urban assaults share a common legacy with those of the past: uncertain strategic effect. While the Baader-Meinhof gang, Red Brigades, Symbionese Liberation Army, and Latin American urban guerillas a la Carlos Marighella may have racked up body counts and notoriety, they arguably failed in their revolutionary mission. Similarly, whatever objective the Mumbai attacks may have had—to liberate Kashmir or protest the status of Muslims in India—was hardly helped by the bloody and nihilistic assault. Although the guerillas did communicate resolve, the ability to synchronize operations, and demonstrate prowess to their supporters.

One thing remains constant in terrorism: terrorists face difficulties in effecting strategic change in the policies of governments and the hearts and minds of the people. Political scientists still debate whether terrorism 'works'; most will agree that even an extremely destructive attack, while successful in causing damage, may only end up reinforcing the government and public’s determination for a more brutal response.

However futile urban assaults may be in the long-term, they pose a pressing and deadly short-term threat. The Pakistani Taliban insurgency, once largely confined to rural outposts, is becoming urbanized. An Asia Times interview with Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, commander of the ‘313 Brigade’ which may have served as a catalyst for the Mumbai strikes, revealed that continued strikes against urban targets are likely (See Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Al-Qaeda’s Guerrilla Chief Lays Out A Strategy,” Asia Times, 15 October 2009). Undoubtedly, South Asia’s terrorist-insurgents have determined that transforming urban nodes in Pakistan and India alike into zones of permanent insecurity serves their objectives.

The lesson for Western police and counterterrorism professionals watching these events is that urban siege is quickly becoming an integral part of 21st century terrorism. Paramilitary assaults and multiple sequenced attacks are signs of an emerging terrorist operational art. While costly in terms of planning and preparation and questionable in their political achievements, these high-profile urban assaults pose a clear and present threat that must be addressed through doctrinal shifts in police operations, training and preparation.

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